This is the largest project that the IRRDB has ever financed with funds provided by its Member Institutes; it is also one of the most interesting and possibly most important exercises ever undertaken by the industry. No other other organization in the industry could have undertaken the exercise on such a large scale, and with such excellent co-operation between many countries.
The objective is easiest to describe in a historical context. The entire rubber plantation industry in Asia and Africa, totalling about 9 million hectares, comes from the progeny of the 70,000 seeds collected by Sir Henry Wickham in Brazil during the space of a few weeks in 1876 - or, to be precise, from the small number of seedlings from germinated from seeds that had survived the shipment from Kew Gardens, London to Asia. It has long been recognized that this degree of inbreeding is undesirable, that widening the genetic base of Hevea is an essential prerequisite to obtaining clones with novel and valuable characteristics in terms of productivity, resistance to disease and to extreme environmental conditions.
The IRRDB project was the first major systematic attempt to replenish Hevea's genetic base by collecting new germplasm from the Amazonian rain forest in a scientific manner. The principal requirements were spelt out at an IRRDB Seminar in Indonesia, and in 1977 an IRRDB Workshop on International Collaboration in Hevea Breeding and the Collection and Establishment of Materials from the Neo-Tropics took matters a stage further. The Workshop recommended that, before starting to collect, the IRRDB should send a preliminary mission to South America, to explore the scientific and political aspects of the project. This mission, took place over September/November 1978, visiting Venezuela, Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Guadeloupe and Trinidad. Governmental authorities in these countries expressed interest in co-operation with the IRRDB.
During 1979, plans became crystallized. In March the Brazilian authorities agreed with the basic concept of a co-operative exercise with the IRRDB. At its meeting in June the IRRDB Board agreed that collections be limited initially to Brazil, that the IRRDB would co-operate fully to achieve the requirements of Brazil, that Guadeloupe be chosen as the intermediate quarantine centre, and that two IRRDB Germplasm Centres should be set up in the Côte d'Ivoire and Malaysia.
Over October/November 1979 plans moved towards finality: after further meetings all the components of the project (finance, logistics of the expedition, collection targets, organization of intermediate quarantine stations, location of the 'Gene Banks', and so on) were settled. The collection expedition took place over January-April 1981, the immediate outcome being a collection at Manaus of 63,768 seeds, 1413 metres of budwood and 1160 seedlings. By 1986 the number of genotypes from seeds was 9000 in Malaysia and 1400 in Côte d'Ivoire, and the budwood at the intermediate quarantine nursery in Guadeloupe had been transferred to the two Centres. During the mid 1980s material was shipped to every member institute that requested it (each made its own choice).
It was never suppposed that this collection would immediately yield material ready for commercial exploitation (ie new clones). After all, it has required 75 years of breeding work to convert the Wickham importations into clones with good productivity (such work has increased yields by a factor of about 10). The objective was to provide a much wider range of genetic material for incorporation into breeding programmes. So it has turned out: those institutes who have started to compare the breeding potential of the new Amazonian germplasm with the 19th century Wickham genotypes report, for example that "genetic diversity studies have revealed the existence of greater allelic wealth in the Amazonian germplasm than in the Wickham group". Good results are expected by developing Wickham × Amazonian crosses. There are also signs that some of the genotypes may offer features lacking in existing planting material, such as better resistance to low temperatures, a feature which is important in some producing regions.
The cost of the collection (US$ 250 000) was covered by voluntary contributions from each member institute, and between 1982 and 1998 the cost of maintaining the trees at the two Germplasm Centres was paid by the IRRDB through the regular Membership contributions.